(Photography by Collin Richie: Peter Sclafani)
Crabmeat-topped fresh fish Meuniere may never fade in Greater Baton Rouge, but there’s no doubt the dining sector has expanded beyond tradition, especially over the last five years. Farm-to-table dishes and craft cocktails are seeping into the mainstream, and diners are trying small, chef-driven eateries while continuing to venture to larger conventional spots. Industry veteran Peter Sclafani, executive chef and co-owner of Ruffino’s Restaurant, shares his thoughts on the local industry’s current status, including its challenges closing the labor gap. Sclafani recently completed a two-year stint as the chair of the Baton Rouge chapter of the Louisiana Restaurant Association, and is a member of the BREADA board of directors, which oversees the Red Stick Farmers Market.
What have you seen change in the Capital Region’s dining scene?
There’s been a lot of growth, not just in numbers of new restaurants, but in the kinds of restaurants we’re opening. The standard used to be grand eateries with lots of seats and white tablecloths, but now we’re seeing smaller places like Beausoleil and City Pork, which are more chef-driven. The chefs are able to have much more creative control.
Is it harder to get creative in a larger restaurant?
Yes, it’s one of the criticisms of Baton Rouge, that you’re going to see the same crabmeat-topped fresh fish Meuniere in several restaurants, including ours. The truth is, it’s what people buy. It’s what fills seats. What customers want drives everything, because if they don’t buy it you can’t be in business.
What food trends are hot lately in Baton Rouge?
Charcuterie, and all things pork. We do pork cheeks on our menu. Also, this whole craft cocktail movement has been big. You’re seeing a lot more savory ingredients in cocktails, and some bars are making their own mixers. Farm-to-table is also really taking off, even though a lot older chefs had already been doing it for years. The difference now is that everybody is on board and customers have become so much more aware of it.
But it’s still a capacity issue, right? Can farmers meet the demand of local restaurants?
Yes, that’s an issue. For big restaurants, buying meat—a whole heritage breed pig, for example—is hard because of supply. We sell a lot of pork cheeks, pork chops and pork loin, but you only get a few of those on one hog. It’s easier for a restaurant of our size to accomplish farm-to-table right now with produce. For smaller restaurants, though, there’s an advantage because you can play around with a smaller amount of supply.
Is the wine side of the menu evolving?
In Baton Rouge, we’re still going to sell a lot of Silver Oak and Camus, and we’re grateful for that, but now, I’ve got my own page on the menu with different wines I like. And with social media integration, our customers know when I’m traveling to Napa or Washington State. For me, it’s about finding an interesting story about a wine or a winemaker to get customers interested.
Where do you see opportunities for growth in local dining?
I think we’re going to see more growth in ethnic restaurants, in smaller restaurants and in fusion cuisine where you have a melding of ethnicities. I think we’ll also see changes in restaurants closing at 2 p.m. What’s coming is staying open to accommodate millennials who want to eat when they want to eat. I think we’re also going to see smaller plates. You’re still going to have diners who want that big traditional portion, but there’s a lot of interest in smaller plates that can be shared.
Is labor keeping up with demand?
There’s a labor shortage, and that’s going to continue to be the biggest challenge local restaurants face, especially finding qualified managers. A lot of culinary school graduates want to leave Louisiana, so we need to find a way to keep them here. In terms of wait staff, we’re watching some millennials turn down the chance to work on a busy Saturday because they’d rather go a concert. The good news is that the Louisiana Restaurant Association’s ProStart program (a high school-based culinary arts program) is in 17 schools in Greater Baton Rouge.
In similar cities, food trucks are often more robust and creative than they have been in Baton Rouge. Will we ever see an increase in numbers of trucks, and will we see them push the culinary envelope?
Food trucks will get more creative when the dining public demands it. On the positive side, the restaurant industry is still the best place to achieve the American dream, and food trucks are a great place to start. In this field, the barrier of entry is low, and all you have to have is passion and the desire to work harder than everybody else.